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Cultural Heritage of Dictatorship in Albania

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CHODIA (Cultural Heritage of Dictatorship in Albania)

Reporting period: 2016-10-17 to 2018-10-16

In many Former ‘Eastern Bloc’ countries, underlying historical contingencies and unresolved conflict have led to the neglect of a rich cultural resource: remains of the recent past dating to the communist dictatorship period. The aim of the Cultural Heritage of Dictatorship in Albania (CHODIA) project is to provide an in-depth assessment of the significance of the cultural heritage of the communist dictatorship period using as a case study Albania, a small country in South-eastern Europe.
Some two billion people (about a third of the overall world population) live in a country that either was, or still is communist. The influence of former and current communist regimes on geopolitical history, culture, lifestyle and more is certainly immense. These regimes represent (or have represented) catalysing moments for the inhabitants of countries that experience them. Attitudes towards the communist dictatorial pasts have varied and, excluding a few notable exceptions, their remains have only recently started to be considered part of traditional notions of heritage. The importance of the cultural heritage of dictatorship is increasingly beginning to be claimed for a variety of reasons within and beyond individual states. In recent decades, the questions raised by such trends have not escaped heritage specialists, and notions of dissonant, unwanted and difficult heritage have emerged to make sense of these situations. UNESCO is also gradually realising the importance of this process and has de facto extended its definitions to also comprise forms of unwanted/‘difficult’ heritage. The specific issues engendered by the cultural heritage of communist dictatorships, in former eastern bloc states, have started to be openly discussed in a number of countries from both heritage and tourism specialists. Building on a number of previous more specialised projects, the research has been the very first attempt at drawing a country-wide perspective on the perception of cultural heritage from the dictatorship period in a modern post-socialist state.
The overall objectives of the project include the assessment of three broad research themes. The first one relates to the what the tangible cultural heritage of the dictatorship period in Albania is. The second dealt with the way the intangible inheritance of communism is, while the third investigates the political uses of such a heritage.
The nature of tangible heritage of dictatorship has been assessed starting from the results of a quantitative and qualitative analysis (counting almost 400 participants overall) extrapolating from data, bottom-up answers to the question posed. The main categories of objects that can be put under this label have been identified and such an assessment is part of the final monograph of the project which is currently under production. Interviews and visitor observations have also helped to assess and refine our understanding of the significance of all these objects/monuments structures. The second main objective of the project, that is the assessment of the immaterial legacy of dictatorship has instead been obtained through the use of ethnographic methodologies. These have been taken the form mostly of interviews conducted in a variety of settings ranging from informal meetings to schools/university classes, commemorations as well as during events organised by various institutional and non-institutional actors. This work has also helped to enlighten the latter group of objectives listed, e.g. those concerned with the assessment of the political use of the communist past. This has been analysed through a variety of means, ranging from interviews, to group activities, to participant observation and the close monitoring of debate on newspapers and media through time.
The results achieved indicate that heritage of communism is several different things for Albanians. Also, the perception of the significance of these various things is rather complex. While certain aspects are certainly unwanted (either because of the association with persecution and suppression of human rights during the regime, or simply because they conflict with what are perceived as the values of western modernity), other are sometimes openly longed. Aspects such as age or social background do play a considerable role in the way the communist past and its heritage is perceived by Albanians as do regional differences within Albania. In terms of general logic, this material and immaterial legacy of the regime is employed in the political arena by various (particularly institutional) actors, in ways that sometimes, somewhat surprisingly, are not too distant from those used during communism.
The results of the project are being disseminated through traditional scientific means (peer-reviewed articles in journals, books as well as conferences appositely organised on this theme and their proceedings) as well as through the web (through a website), speeches/workshops for non-academic audiences (broader public and heritage/museum professionals alike) and other side projects commenced by the fellow in collaboration with local heritage professionals.
The project as allowed to go beyond simplistic notions of ‘unwanted heritage’ and to make sense of the complex way in which Albanians understand the inheritance of the communist dictatorship and use it in their broader political arena, an understanding that includes also the influence of the overarching global geo-political and social context. More broadly the project has allowed to make sense of the way the troubled past of former authoritarian regimes becomes heritage. Such a progress will undoubtedly benefit future approaches within the broader field of heritage practice, positively influencing also policy intervention from the part of national and supranational actors, promoting a fairer and more grounded approach to the management of this kind of heritage. Making sense of the perception of the communist past in current day Albania is undoubtedly an aspect of critical importance, for a bottom-up understanding of the heritage from this period lacked in the country completely. The research and other activities engendered by the project are ultimately steps in this direction.